HomeNewsCosta Rican Copper Bust Underscores Regional Uptick in Theft and Smuggling

Costa Rican Copper Bust Underscores Regional Uptick in Theft and Smuggling


A copper smuggling ring in Costa Rica was stealing tons of the metal from the country's electrical and phone wires to send to Asia, the latest example of how this crime is gradually becoming increasingly sophisticated.

On March 29, Costa Rican authorities carried out raids across various cities, arrested 18 people, including the alleged ringleader, a Taiwanese national who had lived in Costa Rica, reported newspaper La Nación. The total weight of the recovered copper surpassed 1,500 kilograms.

The modus operandi of the organization involved several steps. According to La Nación, one segment of the organization undertook cable theft and transportation to a collection center outside the capital city, San José. The copper was then extracted, processed and packaged into bales for transportation on cargo ships.

The group was able to export more than 70 containers with 20 tons of copper each, reaching a value of more than $210,000 per unit. The alleged destinations for the products included China, Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Indonesia.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Costa Rica

Most of the copper recovered in the operation belonged to the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE), according to a press release from the state-owned electricity provider. Apart from the financial losses accrued by providers, copper robbery has left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity and phone services, OIJ director Walter Espinoza explained to reporters.

Costa Rica differs from its South American neighbors as it has no domestic copper processing companies or plants, according to La Nación. Nonetheless, Costa Rica has seen an uptick in cable theft over the past few years. In 2020, losses totaled almost $2 million from cable theft and hundreds of kilometers of telephone wires were rendered useless in 2021, according to ICE.

Costa Rica authorities have previously sounded alarm bells about gangs robbing copper for export to Asia, and the most recent bust all but confirms their concerns.

InSight Crime Analysis

Copper theft has plagued Latin America for decades, but organized procurement and distribution networks to steal and export copper have grown to an enterprise-scale in recent years.

In Costa Rica, the groups dedicated to copper theft have begun to dress up as technicians, driving falsely labeled ICE trucks and wearing similar clothing to avoid suspicion. Thieves even forge official permits to assuage the concerns of neighbors and businesses. In the most recent bust, officials discovered large-scale copper extraction and packaging operations, indicating that criminals were becoming more creative with robbery and had increased the quantity of copper they were moving.

Increased demand for copper has fueled the illicit trade of the metal. Whereas a kilogram of copper sells for about $6 domestically, the payout is much higher in Asian countries. And despite an initial drop in copper demand at the beginning of the pandemic, global prices have since steadily increased and reached an all-time high in March 2022. The lucrative market encourages a level of organization and logistics above those of petty street thieves.

However, copper theft has become more sophisticated in Costa Rica and across the region. In recent years, Chilean authorities have discovered a series of large-scale illicit copper shipments at its ports. The most recent happened in February 2022, when authorities found 12 tons of copper headed for South Korea. There have been dozens of coordinated robberies on trains carrying tons of copper in remote parts of Chile.

SEE ALSO: Chile's Copper Robbing Epidemic Likely Fueled by China Demand

Argentina and Uruguay have also experienced massive spikes in copper cable theft from electricity and telecommunications infrastructure. Large-scale organized theft is beginning to characterize typical copper robbery in the countries, such as 300 Argentines participating in the mass extraction of underground telephone wire.

Even in Colombia, companies reported millions of dollars lost in revenue due to the theft of network infrastructures like copper tubes, cables, and lids. El Nuevo Siglo reported that multi-prong criminal networks were dismantling wiring across neighborhoods in Bogota and then transporting it for scrap.

The Costa Rica case underscores the increased sophistication of copper theft throughout Latin America. If copper prices remain high globally, the illicit market for the metal is unlikely to shrink.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content


Specialist gangs are smuggling luxury vehicles from Colombia into Venezuela, shining a spotlight on how the country has become a…

CHILE / 19 JAN 2023

Chile's lucrative copper industry is beleaguered by daring attacks on trains carrying tons of copper through the desert.

BRAZIL / 11 AUG 2021

A number of recent raids have highlighted how illegal pesticide smuggling in Brazil is fueled by Chinese contraband.

About InSight Crime


All Eyes on Ecuador

2 JUN 2023

Our coverage of organized crime in Ecuador continues to be a valuable resource for international and local news outlets. Internationally, Reuters cited our 2022 Homicide Round-Up,…


Open Position: Social Media and Engagement Strategist

27 MAY 2023

InSight Crime is looking for a Social Media and Engagement Strategist who will be focused on maintaining and improving InSight Crime’s reputation and interaction with its audiences through publishing activities…


Venezuela Coverage Receives Great Reception

27 MAY 2023

Several of InSight Crime’s most recent articles about Venezuela have been well received by regional media. Our article on Venezuela’s colectivos expanding beyond their political role to control access to…


InSight Crime's Chemical Precursor Report Continues

19 MAY 2023

For the second week in a row, our investigation into the flow of precursor chemicals for the manufacture of synthetic drugs in Mexico has been cited by multiple regional media…


InSight Crime’s Chemical Precursor Report Widely Cited


We are proud to see that our recently published investigation into the supply chain of chemical precursors feeding Mexico’s synthetic drug production has been warmly received.